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  • Simultaneity of Media:Kafka’s Literary Screen
  • Bianca Theisen

A train appears at the horizon; we see the locomotive, expanding in our field of vision, suddenly emerging in front of us in a split-second and coming to a stop at the station; a conductor hurries to open the coach doors, passengers get off the train, rearrange their clothing and carry their luggage: their movements seem spontaneous and unintentional. And thus, as Henri Clouzot concluded in the description he gave in a newspaper review of L'Arrivée d'un train en gare à La Ciotat by the brothers Lumière, the new medium of film presents us with life itself in its many-faceted and unpredictable appearances.1 While Clouzot highlights the life-like quality and the reality context of film, the medium's first audiences often reacted with panic when the represented objects seemed to move out of the depth of the cinematic screen toward them, only then to disappear from their field of vision. Or their reaction was one of horror and dread, triggered by the close-up presentation of what appeared to be severed limbs and fragmented bodies for an audience not yet able to perceptually integrate disjointed images into a coherent scene.2 "At the dawn of cinematography," Jurij Lotman writes, "moving images on the screen aroused a physiological feeling of horror in the audience (shots of an onrushing train) or physical nausea (shots taken from a great [End Page 543] height or with a swaying camera). The audience did not distinguish, emotionally, between the image and reality."3 But those reactions to the new medium of film, both Clouzot's feeling of the life-like, real quality of the "living photographs" ("lebend[e] Fotografie")4 as well as the perceptual dread in the face of an almost fantastic disjointedness, betray a consciousness of the peculiar crosscutting of reality and fiction in film. While the spectators who rushed to the end of the room as the train was moving toward them were aware of the illusional character of the represented event, they reacted to it emotionally as if it were a real event.

"The audience freezes as the train passes by," Kafka comments on the reaction of audiences spellbound by the film of the brothers Lumière.5 His laconic statement stands out as the first entry in his notebook from 1910 and specifies the contemporary observations of the first audiences' panic or perplexity in view of an illusional reality: with its emphasis on freezing and paralysis, it implies that the immobilized spectator, transfixed by the image of the train passing by, becomes one with the statuary position of the camera in the Lumières' film and sees the train from its perspective. Kafka formulates his insight into the effects of the cinematic medium from the angle of reception, almost as if it were itself a camera set up behind the audience watching the train on the screen: the notebook entry offers an observation on spectators who observe the camera's observations. As if miming the new cinematic medium itself, Kafka's comment presents itself as the image of an instant, which oscillates between stasis and motion, audience and screen, reality and fiction. What the notebook entry suggests, then, is not only Kafka's astute awareness of the audience's involvement through the filmic medium, but also his attempt to simulate cinematic observation and the observation of cinema in writing.

Kafka's fascination with the movies is indicated in his diaries between 1910 and 1913 as well as in his letters. Max Brod, with whom he shared this fascination, noted that Kafka dragged along his siblings and friends to the movies and would afterwards talk about nothing else for hours. The early films Kafka refers to, often only implicitly, in [End Page 544] his diaries and letters include for instance Le galant de la Garde française (France: Pathé 1908), The White Slave (Denmark: August Blom 1910; lost), Une intrigue à la cour de Henri VII (France: Pathé 1913), Der Andere (Germany: Max Mack 1913), La Broyeuse de coeurs (France: Valetta/Pathé 1913; lost), and Endlich allein, oder Isidors Hochzeitsreise (Germany: Max Mack 1913). Hanns Zischler has...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6598
Print ISSN
0026-7910
Pages
pp. 543-550
Launched on MUSE
2006-04-27
Open Access
No
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